×

Film Review: ‘The Final Master’

Xu Haofeng's historical martial-arts thriller is a bit choppy, but its deadly Wing Chun fight scenes have passion and zing.

With:
Liao Fan, Song Jia, Song Yang, Chin Shih-Chieh, Huang Jue.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4851640/

Chen Shi (Liao Fan), the suavely severe hero of “The Final Master,” is an apostle of the Wing Chun style of hand-to-hand combat. The moment you witness the hair-raising brand of Wing Chun he favors, you see why someone could be religiously devoted to this particular school of kickass: It’s cooler than cool. In “The Final Master,” the principal weapon on display is a dragon pole with a pair of butterfly swords attached to each end. It looks like a giant Swiss Army knife, and when Chen and one of his opponents go at each other, whipping those double-edged blade blossoms through the air (whoosh! whoosh! whoosh!), then slamming the daggers against each other (clang! clang!), we seem to have walked into the world’s most primitive yet elaborate street fight. It’s like seeing a lightsaber duel in which each fighter has the limbs of Edward Scissorhands. The combat scenes in “The Final Master” are galvanizing, and the most catchy element in them may be the post-sync sound effects. The airy scrape of metal on metal lends the scenes a slashing excitement.

“The Final Master” was written and directed by Xu Haofeng, the popular author of martial-arts fiction who wrote the screenplay for Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” (2013). That movie was also the tale of a Wing Chun maestro — Ip Man, the guru who ultimately trained Bruce Lee — and though its images had a historical glow, it was a somber mess of a movie; it had neither enough fighting nor enough of consequence to make up for the absence of fighting. “The Final Master,” set in Tianjin in the 1930s, is actually a far better film, because Xu, as a storyteller, has crafted it as a likably skewed piece of wuxia mythology. It’s a passionate comic book in which the combat has meaning.

Chen, with his moody poker face (he looks like a goateed Matt Damon with bangs), takes a beautiful wife (Song Jia), who up until then he has barely spoken to, and he also takes on a brilliant apprentice, the feral prodigy Geng Liang Chen (Song Yang), a former coolie he trains to face off against the champions of eight out of the city’s 19 fight-club academies. Only if he can defeat all eight will Chen be allowed to set up his own academy.

If that entry bar sounds extreme enough to be a little nuts, have no fear — it is. And that’s without mentioning that Geng, even if he does succeed in winning all eight battles, will then be ostracized, and perhaps murdered, for the crime of having made the academies lose face. (And you thought getting into Oberlin was hard.) What makes all of this jumping-through-hoops ritual absorbing, rather than annoying, is that it’s driven by Chen’s devotion at all cost to the holy cause of Wing Chun. Liao Fan conveys the glamorous burden of an East-meets-Western hero, and the spark that animates the fight scenes, each of which is staged with its own unique tenor and style (and weapons!), is that they’re all being fought for a higher cause. Call it the Force of Wing Chun.

The story is choppy, to the point of being needlessly confusing at times, yet it also disarms our expectations in likable ways. We don’t get the usual training-of-the-disciple sequence, and that may be because the film doesn’t want the audience to develop too close an identification with Geng, since it’s built into his relationship with Chen that he’s going to be betrayed. Chen remains the hero, a man of grudging nobility, yet he is plotted against from all sides, and his marriage is a hotbed of pain, since Song Jia’s Guohui Zhao is in agony over the child she was forced to give up because of his non-Chinese father. For a martial-arts picture, there’s an unusual amount of angst rolling around in “The Final Master.” That’s one reason the fights are cathartic. They’re exploding with the emotion the rest of the movie scarcely knows what to do with.

Chen takes on each fight as a solemn call of duty, and Liao Fan, so commanding in the 2014 noir thriller “Black Coal, Thin Ice,” proves a dynamic physical actor by mimicking one of Bruce Lee’s most magnetic traits: His movements are lightning…but minimal. He does just enough to hit you, or cut you. When Chen faces off in an alleyway against an army of thugs equipped with bamboo staffs, or, later on, a cadre of academy hooligans wielding knives the size of car bumpers, he’s so good at turning their own energy against them that his enemies seem to melt on contact. “The Final Master” isn’t the knockout it could have been (the script has enough holes to feel a little too hollow), and it has virtually no chance to cross over to stateside audiences the way that films like “House of Flying Daggers” and “Kung Fu Hustle” did a decade ago. But if Xu can figure out a way to streamline his talent, he has the makings of a movie like that in him.

Film Review: 'The Final Master'

Reviewed at Magno 2, New York, May 24. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 109 MIN.

Production: A United Entertainment Partners release of a Beijing Century Partner, Culture & Media Inc, Heyi Pictures, Magilm Picture production. Produced by Luo Xiaoxi, Lisa Li, Xu Haofeng. Executive producers, Chen Dongqui, Yang Dong.

Crew: Directed, written by Xu Haofeng; camera, Wang Tianlin (color, widescreen); editors, He Sisi, Xu Haofeng; production designer, Xian Rui Qing; costume supervisor, Chen Tongxen; music, An Wei.

With: Liao Fan, Song Jia, Song Yang, Chin Shih-Chieh, Huang Jue.

More Film

  • Joe Anthony Russo

    Russo Brothers Announce 'Grimjack,' Live-Action 'Battle of the Planets' Adaptations

    Joe and Anthony Russo are looking to their youth to populate the development slate at their production company AGBO. A relatively obscure comic book called “Grimjack” will count the Russos as producers for adaptation, they announced at San Diego Comic-Con. They’re also cooking up a live-action adaptation of the animated show “Battle of the Planets.” [...]

  • Chadwick Boseman stars in 21 Bridges

    Watch Chadwick Boseman Hunt Down Killers in New '21 Bridges' Trailer

    Shots are fired in a new trailer for “21 Bridges,” starring Chadwick Boseman and J.K. Simmons, released during a Comic-Con panel today. The heist-thriller, produced by Joe and Anthony Russo of “Avengers: Endgame,” stars Boseman as an NYPD detective Andre Davis who finds himself embroiled in a city-wide manhunt after two cops are accused of [...]

  • David Crosby and Cameron Crowe'David Crosby:

    Cameron Crowe Picks Five Favorite Underrated David Crosby Tracks

    “Music is love,” as David Crosby once sang, and nothing breeds deeper love than a sense that something is overlooked. So that’s why Variety asked Cameron Crowe to dig deep into the Crosby canon and pick not just a triad but five favorites from among the CSN singer’s most underrated tracks. Crowe, of course, has [...]

  • Halloween

    New 'Halloween' Movies Set for 2020, 2021

    Universal Pictures has unveiled back-to-back “Halloween” sequel movies that will open in 2020 and 2021. The studio made the announcement Friday, noting that last year’s “Halloween,” starring Jamie Lee Curtis and directed by David Gordon Green, went on to become the highest-grossing installment in the horror franchise at more than $250 million worldwide. The first [...]

  • Above the Shadows

    Film Review: ‘Above the Shadows’

    Grief-fueled romantic fantasies can be tricky for filmmakers not named Wim Wenders. Everyone aspires to make “Wings of Desire” with its stirring immediacy, beautiful imagery and pressing poignancy, but most wind up delivering something closer to its decent but dreary American remake, “City of Angels” — which could also be said for writer-director Cynthia Myers’ [...]

  • Crawl Movie

    'Crawl' and Other Disaster Movies Pose Unique Obstacles for Production Designers

    The rampaging fires, earthquakes and storms of disaster movies present unusual challenges for a production: On top of the normal work of creating a film’s lived-in and realistic locations, designers must build sets that the forces of nature can batter, flood and ravage into something completely different. Take “Crawl,” in which a Category 5 hurricane [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content